China kicks off space station final module launch campaign

HELSINKI — Assembly work on a Long March 5B heavy rocket is underway at the Wenchang spaceport as China prepares to complete construction of its Tiangong space station.

Components of the 849 metric ton Long March 5B rocket were recently delivered to Wenchang, the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announcement September 3.

The rocket is currently being prepared for an early October launch of the 17.9-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter, 22-ton Mengtian (“dreaming of the sky”) experience module.

Mengtian will join two earlier modules – the Tianhe core module and the Wentian experimental module – in orbit to complete the T-shaped Tiangong space station.

China intends to keep the space station permanently manned for at least a decade, gain experience in manned spaceflight, conduct a series of experiments and potentially explore commercial opportunities.

Mengtian will be the third module launch in China in 18 months, following the launch of Tianhe in April 2021 and Wentian in July this year. China had previously planned to launch Tianhe in 2018, but a failed Long March 5 launch in July 2017 and subsequent engine issues delayed the project.

Components for the fourth Long March 5B rocket were delivered to Qinglan Port near Wenchang on Hainan Island in early September by the purpose-built cargo ships Yuanwang 21 and 22.

The five-meter-diameter rocket was manufactured and tested in the northern port city of Tianjin before being shipped south.

The launch is also expected to see the first stage of Long March 5B enter orbit. The previous three Long March 5B launches have resulted in high-profile and controversial events uncontrolled returns main stages of approximately 22 metric tons.

Mengtian was also shipped from Tianjin and arrived in Wenchang on August 9. The new module will see Tiangong expand to a living and working space of approximately 110 cubic meters. It will also provide greater power generation with another pair of 30-meter-long solar panels like Wentian’s.

The module will house science racks for conducting experiments in microgravity, with research areas such as fluid physics, combustion and materials science, and space technologies.

It also has a payload airlock that will allow the small 5.2-meter-long robotic arm launched with the Wentian module to grab science experiments and install them on payload adapters.

Mengtian will be greeted in orbit by the three crew members of the Shenzhou-14 mission. Commander Chen Dong and his teammate Liu Yang on Thursday completed their first extravehicular activity, using the new Wentian airlock.

The Wentian module is currently docked at the forward port of the Tianhe docking hub. It will be transposed to side carry before Mengtian arrives. The new module will also be moved later, completing the T-shaped space station.

The Shenzhou-14 crew is also expected to welcome the Shenzhou-15 crew aboard Tiangong later this year, marking the first crew transfer from China.

The launch of the Xuntian Optical Module, a Hubble-class co-orbiting space telescope, is scheduled for launch in 2024. Xuntian will be able to dock with the CSS for maintenance and repairs.

The space station itself could also be expanded from three to six modules, according to Chinese space officials. Such expansion may depend on other countries joining the project.

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